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Without Federal Grant, Proposed Charter School Eyes Later Launch

School board members likely to defer decision to allow Fairfax Leadership Academy more time to secure funding, address issues.

Fairfax County School Board members will likely defer the application for a charter school for at-risk students when it votes on the proposal Oct. 25, giving the school's leaders a chance to keep the application alive while it secures more funding and addresses other concerns highlighted by the system's review committee.

The months-long discussion about the Fairfax Leadership Academy took a new turn Monday as its organizers announced it planned to push back its targeted start date by a year — to 2014 — upon learning it did not receive a $625,000 federal grant it had hoped to use for startup costs.

FLA Executive Director Eric Welch, a J.E.B. Stuart High School teacher, told board members at a work session Monday the school was not on a recently released list of recipients for the U.S. Department of Education’s charter school “implementation” grant, though he hadn't heard from the department directly. 

Welch said he is awaiting more details on why FLA did not receive the grant.

The news came just more than a week ahead of an Oct. 25 regular meeting at which the board is expected to vote on the proposal, which would be the first charter school in Northern Virginia and the fifth in the state.

While a staff committee recommended the board not accept the application unless certain conditions are met by Dec. 1 — including funding and instructional commitments from community agencies, better commitments from parents at the 18 elementary schools that would feed into the charter and more defined curriculum, Standards of Quality for staff and planned services for Level 1 and Level 2 students with disabilities — a majority of Board members indicated Monday they'd like to instead defer the vote with certain expectations, determined by amendments offered by board members over the next week.

"We don’t want to sink this proposal or go forward prematurely until you’ve had time to work on these issues," Janie Strauss (Dranesville) said.

Part of that deferral could be a public pledge to support the charter school despite the pending conditions of its vote, which would allow the charter school to more easily secure outside funding.

Most board members agreed Monday the county can do more to address its neediest and most at-risk students, and the school fulfills that need.

But Welch said in many respects his group is dealing with a "chicken or the egg" issue: Academic partners and financial backers have expressed interest but are hesitant to move forward without knowing if the school board believes in the application.

Welch said most of the school's annual operating budget would be driven by per-pupil funding already given to the students the schools would serve. As the school expands, from 75 students in grade seven its first year to 450 total enrollment as it builds out through grade 12, so will that budget, he said.

FCPS Chief Financial Officer Susan Quinn said other costs to consider are the contracts that would help the school operate for 8 hours instead of six and a half, and for 206 days instead of 183.

 "The financial plan requires re-evaluation once all funding sources have been identified and secured," Deputy Superintendent Richard Moniuszko said.

Much of Monday's discussion also revolved around whether the school would better function as a magnet or lab program, the admissions process, how to best identify at-risk students and whether the proposed site at the now-vacant Graham Road Elementary School is the right spot for the school -- one of the main concerns highlighted by the parent group UPROAR, which has been vocal in opposing the school's creation in part for that reason.

The school will likely need "substantive investment in building modifications," Chief Operating Officer Dean Tistadt said, noting it's not clear what the county would require to get the school up to code.

Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) said she thought the school system could do more to help the application become a reality, and hoped it would make that a goal with the extra time a deferral would buy.

"I think the questions ought to be what can we do to make this happen versus what are the things that gave us pause," Schultz said. "Just because we can’t do everything doesn’t mean we can’t do something."

As Welch awaits the board's decision Oct. 25, he said in an email to Patch, “we were very pleased with the comments of School Board members today and that there is an overall consensus that our proposal, while requiring some changes, is an idea worth pursuing."

The full FCPS committee report is attached at the top right of this article.

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